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June 29, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Everyone's a critic Everyone's a critic (June 29, 2005)

Public Art Commission under fire from all sides for selections, methods

by Bill D'Agostino and Patricia Bass

At this year's Tall Tree awards dinner, local attorney Hal Michelson spent several minutes at the podium ridiculing one of Palo Alto's newest pieces public art -- a collection of stones near Adobe Creek on El Camino Real that he said resembled "giant meatballs."

The speech, heard by many of the city's community leaders, also featured slides of the concrete artwork in question. In response, the capacity crowd roared its approval.

The incident perfectly summed up the past few years for the Palo Alto Public Art Commission.

The seven volunteers scour any and all resources to raise money for art they desire. They face scrutiny from city administrators, who say the group sometimes bends the rules. And most of all, their often controversial picks are greeted by locals with harsh critiques.

"You have to have a heart of steel sometimes," Commissioner Barbara Mortkowitz said. "Sometimes it hurts to hear the comments."

There are numerous examples of the commission's distinctive taste across the city.

California Avenue has been enlivened by a variety of pieces, from paintings of underwater life to a doll with a face in her belly. Mitchell Park features older works, including a large sculpture of a man pushing a wheel. Midtown features two prominent murals, with a third by Greg Brown on the way. Brown's whimsical mothers, aliens and bank robbers already adorn many downtown storefronts.

And there's frequently something imaginative brewing at City Hall. Artist Sam Yates currently has parked his solar-powered garage outside, part of his yearlong campaign to photograph every city parcel and find "The Color of Palo Alto."

On Friday, the city's newest artwork, involving silkworms and pages of Korean phonebooks, will be installed in City Hall.

There is no one way the group commissions a piece of work. Sometimes the artist comes first, sometimes the location.

For some projects, neighborhood or business groups come to the commission asking for a piece on a specific site. For others, the commission itself decides its time to enliven a space. Recently, it held a contest to decorate downtown's utility boxes.

Each commissioner -- most are artists themselves -- has a different philosophy regarding the approval or rejection of a project. Mortkowitz, who owns a gallery in Palo Alto and is also an arts administrator, looks to see if the piece solves a specific "problem." For instance, when considering art for the city's main entrances, she wants a piece that announces you're coming into Palo Alto.

Others say they are trying to represent the city and the times.

"I think since Palo Alto is a little bit at the forefront, its public art should be at the forefront," said Commissioner David Negrin, a non-artists who is the group's newest member.

Despite complaints from residents regarding such unusual pieces as California Avenue's "Go Mama" (i.e. the two-faced doll sculpture), commissioners say they are not intentionally pushing the artistic envelope.

"I believe it has more to do with what's happening today, to open up the community to what is happening today," Vice Chair Paula Kirkeby said. "It's not pots and flowers. There is a war on. In the '50s, we had Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhart. They were reflections of what was happening in the world -- those black empty canvasses speak of the world."

Commissioner Karen Frankel added, "What's edgy today isn't necessarily going to be edgy in five years, 10 years. It's going to be, 'Oh, that's such a great piece. That's such a great mural.'"

Other recent choices are not so cutting edge, Frankel pointed out. For instance, Guinean born artist Mohammed Soumah recently painted lush mural featuring California poppies at the Country Sun on California Avenue.

Of course, even the most convention pieces can have their detractors. When she first saw a sketch of Soumah's work, Kirkeby was not convinced. Now that it's complete, however, she can't stay away from the work.

"It's so magical," Kirkeby said. "I think there's a trick in there someplace in there and I keep looking for it."

The group's most controversial artwork in recent years -- Digital DNA -- is, depending on whom you ask, either a celebration or a critique of computers' impact on the globe and Palo Alto's role in birthing technology.

The city's anarchists have embraced the 7-foot-tall, egg-shaped sculpture, located in Lytton Plaza. One Web site announcing last Saturday's rally called the artist, Adriana Varella, "a highly valued member of the Bay Area anarchist community."

"So anyone who intends to do violence at this event, should avoid damaging it," the anonymous writer advised. It was left alone.

Digital DNA became controversial when it was discovered that private developer Roxy Rapp hoped to install a fountain in the public plaza, sans artwork. Soon after, the egg burned down in a warehouse fire. Commissioners accused city staff of favoring Rapp's plan and delaying the installation.

Still, the commission is clearly not opposed to working with developers. In fact, one of its next works -- a new mural by Greg Brown, whose whimsical humans and aliens adorn many downtown walls -- will be on a building owned by Rapp in the Midtown Neighborhood.

Of course, the saga of Digital DNA is nothing compared to the plight of "Foreign Friends."

Installed in 1989, the wooden couple was a gift from Palo Alto's sister city in Linkoping, Sweden. It was frequently vandalized, stolen once and beheaded twice. The arts commission ultimately decided to remove the piece from its collection, saying it had less controversial works to deal with.

Eventually Foreign Friends was placed in storage, where it rotted until it was finally destroyed in 2000.

"Public art is a great example of 'No good deed goes unpunished,'" said Bruce W. Davis, the executive director of Arts Council Silicon Valley and a Palo Alto resident.

Davis praised the city's collection, saying the art commission does a lot with the scarce public monies it is allotted. He noted there is even artwork near the city dump in the Baylands.

"You've got nature, you've got garbage, you've got art," Davis said. "Particularly young children need to see art in unusual places. It demystifies the elitism."

Davis questioned a frequent criticism of edgier art -- that people "just don't get it."

"It's like jazz -- what's there to get?" he wondered, adding that people should just enjoy the art.

It's not just the art that critics point to; sometimes they also question the public funds used to purchase such works.

"It's a waste of time," resident Rita Morgan said as she visited California Avenue recently. "I don't think it provides much. I don't mind if it is privately funded, but if the city is going to complain about not having money and cutting services it should go."

Come time to balance the city's budget, those facing a cut to their valued service often target the funds allocated for new public artworks, even though it represents less than $1 a year per resident.

Neighbors of Palo Alto Hills complained recently when the fire department announced it was, to save money, cutting the number of days they staff their seasonal fire station. In a petition, former neighborhood association President Jan Terry questioned why residents were losing protection from blazes when the city had recently spent $10,000 on Digital DNA.

That kind of argument disappoints commissioners, especially since they heavily leverage the $55,000 annually allotted for acquisitions. The group said they get businesses and neighborhoods to contribute additional funds. The commission also acquires works for well below market value.

A large abstract metal sculpture by San Francisco artist Fletcher Benton is worth at least $350,000, but is being acquired for $40,000. Benton is giving the work to the city because of his friendship with Kirkeby. It will be placed on the corner of El Camino Real and Page Mill Road, part of the new soccer complex being built by Stanford University.

Redwood City resident Carolyn Ybarra, whose son attends a day camp at the Palo Alto Art Center, said money spent on public art is "always worth it."

"Art's just a part of life," she said. "So it should be a part of the city as well."

The Public Art Commission was established in 1975.

Its role, according to city code, is to select artwork for public land and to act "as a liaison" between artists and private property owners wishing to install artwork in public view.

Kirkeby, a Buddist and an art dealer, was on the first commission 30 years ago.

"I loved it; it was high. The people and the activity and the art that we got to see ... it was a new day," she said. "It was fresh and it was wonderful." She returned to the commission two years ago after a long hiatus. She admits it's been harder the second time around, partially due to new restrictions on city officials.

"This now feels like it's business," she said. "This is hard."

It's easy to see why the vice chair is frustrated. Those restrictions have been a source of controversy as much as the art itself.

Earlier this month, top city administrators chastised commission Chair Gerald Brett for subverting proper city channels on the silkworm project. Korean company Samsung is paying the artist $10,000, but the first $5,000 payment had to be returned because the city couldn't find a way to pay a foreign artist.

City administrators blamed Brett for moving too fast on the project, but Brett argued they gave him bad advice.

Last year, a similar back and forth occurred with retiring Arts and Culture Director Leon Kaplan. He criticized the commission for being too cozy with artist Marta Thoma, a former commissioner and a former student of one commissioner. Thoma was awarded a commission for Bowden Park at Alma Street. Her sculpture, a car with baby legs, will be installed soon.

Councilwoman Yoriko Kishimoto, this year's commission liaison, has been pushing the group to more broadly advertise its proposals, allowing a wider community of artists to apply for grants.

During a meeting earlier this year, the city attorney's office also chided the commission for giving outside groups -- especially those that contribute money to a project -- equal say in the final vote for a project, saying it was the commission's responsibility to have the final say.

That meeting, which also was a primer on the state's open government law and the city's procedures for contracts and procurements, was held due to concerns about the commission's past practices, according to Community Services Director Richard James. (He refused to elaborate on the commission's specific alleged past misdeeds that led to the meeting.)

Although the commissioners say they obey the rules, some candidly admit they'd rather the process to be simpler. "I wish we didn't have so many constraints," said Kirkeby.

City Councilman Vic Ojakian was the liaison to the commission in 2004.

"I'd rather be on commission than on the council," he said, laughing. "Damn the rules, they're trying to get something done."

Staff Writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at bdagostino@paweekly.com.


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